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Government facing Defeat on Land Amendment

By Ofwono Opondo

 July 19, 17

The attempt by government to amend the constitution in an effort to streamline land acquisition for public infrastructure is meeting lukewarm and hostile reception needlessly from both MPs and the public, partly because the ministers concerned haven’t done advance exhaustive political footwork. Consequently, it is seen as running sour liquid down the throats of vulnerable Ugandans by an ever lackluster government processes.
Some MPs think they are being coaxed by an unserious executive to cheat their own voters on property values, and the bill is becoming a hard sell. As usual, opposition MPs are mounting daily resistance. Makerere University Law professor, Joe Oloka-Onyango, a persistent government critic, wrote in the New Vision describing the proposed amendment “patently unconstitutional,” as it seeks to override other constitutional rights by “infection.” The Land’s Minister, Betty Amongi Ongom spent this whole week alone trying to knit together a skeptical media and fractious parliament to support the amendment. And to be honest, speaking to Amongi mid-week after her press conference, she appeared to acknowledge that the bill seemed doomed and there is no fall-back plan as yet unless a miracle comes her way through the Committee of Legal Affairs.
“It has been a very very challenging experience for me, there are MPs deliberately distorting, misinforming and misrepresenting the intention of the government. The good intention of the amendment should not be overshadowed by false allegations of land grabbing,” Amongi told reporters.
The proposal seeks to amend Article 26 of the 1995 Constitution to facilitate faster Land Acquisition for Public infrastructure by inserting clause (3) stating “Where the owner of property or any person having interest in or right over property objects to the compensation awarded under the law made under clause (2)(b),  the Government or Local Government shall deposit with Court for the Property owner or any person having an interest in or right over the property, the compensation awarded for the property, and the Government or Local Government shall take possession of the property pending determination by the Court of any dispute relating to compensation.
(4) The owner of property or person having any interest in or right over the property shall have a right to access the compensation deposited with the court referred to in clause (3), at any time during the determination of the dispute.
(5) Parliament shall, by law, prescribe the time within which any dispute referred to in clause (3) shall be determined.”
Opponents argues that the amendment is merely seen fiddling with the constitution, and is half-measure because it only deals with situations where an affected landlord disputes the government’s compensation value, and does not address a core issues that have caused disaffection against government infrastructure projects where land acquisition is involved.
Among these are poor or ad hoc planning  and connivance by public officials in the lands ministry especially the Chief Government Valuer’s office, the procurement entities implementing the projects, and speculators in the chain. As a result, the usual political opportunists and oppositionists have jumped on the proposed amendment with the intention of derailing the whole process even when they know that government has no intention of ‘grabbing’ land from its citizens.
It is important to underscore that all public works whether for health, transportation, security and emergencies serve the general public good, and therefore benefits the citizens, and not government leaders. Unfortunately, because of rampant shoddy methods of work by public officials, who cheat, government is beginning to lose the trust of its own people even where matters ought to as clear as the blue skies.
If this amendment collapses, it will mark a devastating political journey as government embarks on wide-ranging constitutional reforms which are perhaps even more controversial. Should that happen, it will leave tens of government infrastructure projects stuck in prolonged delays, huge costs and wastage which according to Amongi now stands at sh.344bn.
Some MPs seem to think, that this Land Amendment Bill could be a trap, which if passed, they might as well swallow the fishing hook, sinker and liner. Instead, they are demanding that government tables all the anticipated constitutional amendments in one “Omnibus Amendment Bill”.
Some MPs actually want the amendment  and the projects to fail, that way, they believe they won’t bear any responsibility for the system’s collapse. Listening to comments from many MPs, one gets the feeling they think they are working for someone else, perhaps President Museveni personally, and now wait for him to summon the NRM caucus to rail his wishes through.
Serious observers think that amendment doesn’t go far enough in addressing the real issues affecting landholding in the country where the rich and their lawyers take advantage of the weak. Meanwhile, the big landlords in Mengo are reaching out to MPs proposing different scenarios including special courts to expediciously handle land matters.
It is clear that the Bill isn’t a half-measure, unworkable and is unacceptable. The door for broad negotiations are open, unfortunately no one among the skeptics is willing to walk through it. Instead they are working tirelessly to get government out of the way.